- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 24, 2001

In the plebiscite of May 23, 1861, Alexandrians voted 95 percent in favor of the Virginia Ordinance of Secession (only white males being allowed to vote). By this act, Alexandria officially was in rebellion against the government. The next day, Federal troops marched in from Washington, starting around dawn and crossing the Potomac River on the Long Bridge.
Alexandria was the first Confederate city repossessed by the government. It was not captured; there was no battle. Confederate troops were present but withdrew, as planned, to the Centreville-Manassas area; the command had concluded that the city was indefensible. Federal warships waited offshore, menacing the city with overwhelming firepower.
Three days later, a military governor and provost marshal superseded the mayor and city council and declared martial law. The government had important plans for Alexandria, and pacification was the first priority. All telegraph, postal, publishing and rail facilities came under Federal control. Homes were searched for now-illegal firearms or Confederate flags and money. Residents who spoke disrespectfully of the government, the Union Army or President Lincoln were arrested.
Because information could now be transmitted only by personal contact, the restriction of movement produced effective security. The occupation declared a boundary around the city ("the lines"), which no one was allowed to cross without a pass issued by the Provost Marshal's Office on King Street. Passes were issued for good cause, usually on a weekly basis.
These restrictions, along with curfew, mail and newspaper censorship and physical barriers, prevented Alexandrians from receiving news and aiding Confederate forces. There is no record of sabotage or espionage by Alexandrians.
The postmaster would not accept mail or newspapers with Southern addresses unless the mailer was a "Union man" whose name was on a list maintained by the provost marshall. Alexandrians could sometimes defeat this by addressing a letter to England, Canada or the Caribbean, to be forwarded to a Southern address.
The city's newspaper, the Alexandria Gazette, refused to take a neutral position and was shut down early. All periodicals had to be pro-Union. Union newspapers that were deliberate propaganda mediums sometimes printed lies that wouldn't hold. For example, one reported that Richmond had been captured this just after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862 (Alexandrians could hear the cannon fire), when the Army of the Potomac had frantically shifted much of its weight north to stand between Gen. Robert E. Lee and Washington.
Thus, Alexandrians could not be sure how the war was going, and rumors flew. Sometimes the facts would arrive in a letter or newspaper that made it through the lines or with a paroled or wounded Confederate soldier or from Yankee soldiers just back from the front. Generally, however, Alexandrians were in the dark, as the occupiers wanted it. As a result, there was much anxiety because many young men (about 50 percent of Alexandrians were of service age) were away with the Confederate forces, and their status usually remained unknown until the end of the war.
Alexandria was critical to the Federal strategy to capture Richmond. The U.S. Quartermaster Department expanded and enhanced Alexandria's port and rail facilities with a number of innovations, most notable the "containerized" rail-to-barge facility at the Franklin Street wharf. The city, situated as it was on the tidal Potomac, exploded into a major, sprawling depot of Union will and material. U.S. Navy and Quartermaster ships delivered troops and supplies from Alexandria's docks for assaults on Richmond from the tidal rivers on the east.
Herman Haupt, chief of the U.S. Military Railroad, established his headquarters at the Orange & Alexandria Railroad depot on Duke Street. The Orange & Alexandria was one of the city's two rail lines, along with the Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire, that were essential to transporting and supplying armies in the Shenandoah Valley, and without their use, Lee could have operated with less concern for Richmond's west side.
The remoteness of the Valley can be better appreciated by the fact that Federal forces never subdued it not even with Gen. Philip Sheridan's scorched-earth campaign. It remained open to John S. Mosby's 43rd Battalion of Partisan Rangers to the end of the war, and by the time of Lee's surrender at Appomattox, his force was larger than ever as it absorbed orphaned troops. It is a matter of record that he contemplated continuing his guerrilla war from the Alleghenies.
The Federal government's huge investment in Alexandria required strong security. A permanent garrison was augmented by tens of thousands of troops in the surrounding camps in transit to or from the fronts. They were put to work conducting searches, doing guard duty and improving nearby forts that were part of Washington's defensive ring. The many abandoned homes in the city were used for barracks, supply points, bakeries, jails, fuel depots and camps for refugee ex-slaves, adding to the jumble.
Governing Alexandria was difficult. There were the usual problems with young troops: gambling, fights, drunkenness, whoring, vandalism and theft. Damage was caused because of the heavy concentration of troops in the city and because of hostility between secessionists and Unionists, soldiers and civilians, and rival units (Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's men detested Gen. William T. Sherman's). Several riots broke out between refugee slaves and Yankee soldiers. What had been an orderly society became literally overnight a crossroads of displacement, alienation, decay and suspense.
All this is conveyed in contemporary writings. One of the best is the Anne S. Frobel diary. The Frobel sisters lived near the intersection of Franconia and Telegraph roads. Federal troops boarded in their farmhouse and camped on their land, and the sisters knew occupiers from the rank of private to general. Like many Alexandrians, the family endured robberies, vandalism, threats and harassment, which smothered the pleasures from knowing decent Yankee soldiers. Anne Frobel called the Yankees "horrid, vile savages" and the like.
"[T]he inhabitants are shocked at the degraded condition of the men sent in their midst to teach them loyalty, as they bear more the appearance of assassins than law-abiding men," she wrote. Another point Frobel made was that the Yankees were not eager to punish Rebels and that most of them seemed indifferent to politics.
From these and other sources, one has reason to conclude that Yankee troops generally were of low quality and that they were poorly trained, disciplined and led. The troops were underfed, and it is known that quartermasters were selling government supplies on the black market. Although many thefts were of food, looting was rampant.
At least one-third of the prewar population had fled, and their unguarded property was ransacked. Anne Frobel wrote that officers were the most efficient looters, sometimes filling government wagons with the contents of an entire house even fireplace mantels for shipment north. Burgundy Farm, home of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, was hollowed out by looters.
Occupation authorities handled complaints either by reminding the complainants that they were in rebellion and therefore had forfeited protection or assuring them that the officials would see what could be done to right the wrongs. Sometimes they meant that and managed to recover property and punish thieving soldiers. More often, good intentions simply dissipated with the vast horde of shifting soldiery and with the officials' other duties
Looting increased as "buyers" who were drawn to Alexandria offered cash for the supply of swag. Especially in demand were objects perceived as distinctly "Southern," for which there was demand in the North. To some, the South was an exotic land.
On the other side, diaries and letters record that some occupying Yankees judged white Alexandrians as lazy, unclean and not enterprising. They found streets and infrastructure poorly built and maintained, and they saw surrounding farms that way, too. Some, but not all, blamed slavery, which they thought bred sloth and intellectual laxity.
Alexandrians clearly were confused about the reality of war. The majority were "secesh," and many had family off fighting. Yet they thought it unfair that they had lost habeas corpus and other constitutional protections, which indicates that they really believed the Constitution allowed secession.
The Confederacy collapsed in April 1865, but Virginia continued under occupation as Military District No. 1 until January 1870, when Federal troops were withdrawn and civil government was restored. Alexandria slumped economically and socially for decades. Prostitutes, hustlers, fences, bureaucrats, sailors and soldiers had come in waves. The city's property, culture and commerce had been damaged severely. Some residents emigrated, some were driven out by Republican political power, some went to government work or to charity.
Huge Federal expenditures did not seed Alexandria's economy. A few wartime contractors grew wealthy, but the old employment structure had been destroyed. Thousands of destitute, illiterate ex-slaves had come to the city and found military work and a place to live in barracks on the west end of Prince Street, but they were let go after the war into a population that did not want them. The occupation created bitterness toward the Federal government that seems gone from Alexandria's population today but still endures in parts of the South.

David Ritchey is a free-lance writer in Baltimore.

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